Rockets-Magic Preview

The Associated Press

Dwight Howard was greeted warmly by an emotional group of Orlando Magic fans during an open scrimmage earlier this month.

A similar scene will surely occur in front of a bigger crowd Monday night.

Howard will play in what could be his final home opener for the Magic when they meet a Houston Rockets team beginning its season under new coach Kevin McHale.

Orlando (0-1) is probably seeing the final go-around for a superstar center for the second time following the departure of Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers after the 1995-96 season.

Like O'Neal, Howard led the Magic to one NBA finals appearance but has grown unhappy with the organization's inability to surround him with more talent. Howard averaged a career-best 22.9 points last season and was second in the league with 14.1 rebounds, and now enters the final season of his contract after requesting a trade through agent Dan Fegan.

Orlando fans have made their voices heard on their desire to keep the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He was greeted by a loud ovation from about 9,000 fans Dec. 17 during a scrimmage before Howard began his eighth season with the franchise.

"It was emotional," Howard said. "It was great to see their reaction. And like I've told you guys from Day 1, I love this city. ... When I came here, everybody called our team the Orlando Tragic. I wanted to change it. Nobody says tragic anymore."

Howard struggled in Sunday's season-opening 97-89 loss at Oklahoma City, making 4 of 12 shots for 11 points to go with 15 boards.

NBA commissioner David Stern weighed in on the Howard situation Sunday, saying before the game, "That's the beauty of the soap opera. How it plays out, we'll wait and see."

The Magic have a good chance of recovering against the Rockets after winning the last four games in the series by an average of 15.5 points. Howard shot 70.7 percent and averaged 19.5 points and 15.3 rebounds in those games.

Houston is learning that rebuilding without a top-notch center isn't easy in the wake of Yao Ming's retirement. The Rockets tried to acquire Lakers star Pau Gasol before the season in a three-team trade that involved Chris Paul, but it was rejected by the league.

Instead, Houston will count on an unheralded roster that includes Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin as well as former Orlando guard Courtney Lee and newcomer Jonny Flynn.

Houston went 43-39 last season, missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

"We've got a lot of young guys, that you never really know if they're going to flow or not," Scola said. "Hopefully, some of these guys surprise us."

The Rockets ranked third in the league in scoring last season with 105.9 points per game. McHale, who went 39-55 in two previous coaching stints with Minnesota, is hoping he can help the team execute even better.

"These guys can make plays," McHale said. "What we don't do, and what we've got to get way better at, is a lot of little stuff. We've got to cut harder, we've got to set better screens. These guys make shots and plays, they can play offensive basketball."

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