HOUSTON — After a warm, if not thunderous, welcome from his thousands of new fans in Texas, Dwight Howard received the positive feedback he wanted from his new teacher.
“He ran the floor, he established himself as a big man in the post and he made plays,” said Hakeem Olajuwon from his mid-court seat on the front row at the Toyota Center Saturday night. “This was just the first game, an exhibition game, but it was a good start.”
The Hall of Famer, who led Houston to back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995, has been tutoring Howard on low post moves in special sessions for the past several summers and the relationship has intensified since Olajuwon re-joined his former team as a part-time assistant coach working with the big men.
Howard scored 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds, dealt three assists and blocked one shot while playing 27 minutes in his Rockets debut, a 116-115 loss to the Pelicans. He shot 6-for-11 from field and 7-for-11 from the foul line.
“I’m especially glad that Dwight got to play as many minutes as he did tonight,” Olajuwon said. “It will do him good to build up his legs and his endurance was soon as possible, so that when the regular season begins he will be ready to dominate.
“What I saw from him tonight were many of the things that we have seen from Dwight earlier in his career. He was athletic. He was alive. But most of all, I think he looked like he is having a good time out there. He is happy and I can tell you from personal experience that means a lot. You need to know that your coach believes in you, that your teammates truly believe in you and that the city is behind you. I think after a couple of difficult seasons, Dwight has that again here in Houston.”
A crowd that was decidedly less than the full house that will be on hand for the Rockets’ Oct. 30 season opener versus Charlotte, was excited even when he lost the opening tip to the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis and moaned when Howard stepped to the free throw line for the first time and missed the first of a pair of free throws with 8:37 left in the first quarter. He made the second shot.
Howard’s first bucket in a Rockets uniform was a five-foot turnaround jumper that came off a feed from Jeremy Lin with 6:14 to go in the opening quarter. On the very next possession, Lin got the ball right back into Howard a slam dunk.
Midway through the third quarter, Howard received the ball paint and used his quickness to spin by Jason Smith and score on on a nifty reverse layup.
“Good move! Good move!” shouted Olajuwon from his seat on the front row. “Don’t hesitate when you see an opening. Take it.”
Howard went to the bench and was done for the night, drawing a defensive three-second call with 56.6 left in the third quarter.
Olajuwon shrugged off the criticism of his pupil from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who said Howard did not have a “go-to move.”
“Dwight has the fundamentals. He has the basics,” Olajuwon said. “What I am trying to help him with is to show him where there are certain things and certain spots in the defenses that he can take advantage of.
“What I did see tonight was him making his presence felt at the defensive end. He had it in mind at times that he wanted to dominate. That’s the way a big man has to think all the time.
“What I also saw were times when he passed the ball back out to a guard or someone else when he should have turned and taken the shot himself.
“I know he wants to fit in with his new teammates. I know this team has played a style where they ran and shot a lot from the outside. But the Rockets have a big man now. A real big man. An All-Star. The kind of big man who can dominate and take them places.
The significance of Howard entering his 10th NBA season is not lost on Olajuwon, who led the Rockets to a championship in his 10th year in the league.
“I can sit here and say that the team and Dwight can really think that way,” Olajuwon said. “It’s early. This is just a start.”