Howard, whom the fans in attendance booed on each of his touches, finished the game with 19 points and 14 boards, but it was James Harden who swung the game for Houston. The All-Star shooting guard scored 31 points to lead all players.
Here's a look at the stories that developed Wednesday.
Harden wears Magic down
Harden used six fourth-quarter shooting possessions to score 11 points, putting the Magic away in his six-minute stint. Orlando limited Harden to just six points on 3-of-8 shooting in the first half, and according to Magic big man Kyle O'Quinn, the Magic didn't change their coverages in the second half; Harden simply went off.
"He did a good job of playing his game tonight in the second half," said Magic swingman Arron Afflalo, who scored a team-high 18 points in his return from a two-game absence. "[In the] third quarter, he kinda got some open looks and some free throws and got into a rhythm. He made some good plays down the stretch in the fourth."
The pick-and-roll combination of Harden and Howard presents defenses myriad challenges. Harden has the handle to get all the way to the rim, the craftiness to draw fouls, the shooting ability to pull up, and the floor vision to find a Howard diving. "He's tough when he gets it going," O'Quinn said. Howard himself sets mean screens, has great hands, and the upper-body strength to finish through contact. Defenses have enough trouble trying to account for one of those players on a given possession. Involving both in the same action puts even more pressure on a defense.
The Rockets shot 59 percent from the floor for 60 points after intermission, a development which Afflalo attributed to his team's lack of urgency. "Our defensive intensity kinda slipped coming out of the half and we could never really... we never really regained it," he said. Houston's ability to get out in transition, in conjunction with the Magic's not getting back quickly enough, helped fuel its second-half offense: it scored seven fastbreak points in the first half but upped that total to 15 in the second.
"That's our leader, so if he felt it slipped, it slipped," said O'Quinn of Afflalo. "I agree with him. We gotta put two defensive halves together if we wanna win the game."
Chilly, but not icy, reception
Howard exited Orlando acrimoniously in 2012, so it didn't come as a surprise to hear Magic fans boo him during pregame introductions, every time he touched the ball, and at the start of the video tribute the team played for him between the first and second quarters.
The Amway Center atmosphere, however, was muted in comparison to Howard's first game back in that building as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in March 2013. Orlando announced its attendance Wednesday at 16,012, but that figure seems generous, given the wide swaths of open seats in the lower bowl and in the corners of the upper bowl.
Fans booed at the start of the tribute video and at its conclusion as public address announcer Paul Porter said Howard's name, but did not sustain the boos for the duration of the video. Overall, one could fairly assess the reception Howard receive as negative, but not overwhelmingly so.
"Tonight was a little bit more energy [than usual], I would say, but it's always energetic," said Magic forward Tobias Harris. "Obviously the fans are into it a little more because of Dwight. It was a great atmosphere to play in. I wish we would have came out with a win."
Loss hits Harris hard
Wednesday's loss seemed to affect Harris. His voice softer but no less gravelly, he took responsibility for Orlando's fate against the Rockets.
"I take a lot of this on myself," Harris said. "I didn't come to play for my team. A game like this is disappointing even more because I went out there and let my team down tonight. It's very disappointing for me."
Harris, who has played brilliantly since the Magic waived Glen Davis, finished the game with 10 points and five boards in 31 minutes. He shot only 3-of-12 from the floor and struggled to get into a rhythm against the likes of Terrence Jones. Howard and Ömer Aşik's protecting the paint also cut down on Harris' driving opportunities, and Harris is never better than when he catches in space and attacks the rim off the bounce.
For his part, Harris felt that he took the same sorts of shots Wednesday that he normally does, but he simply missed them.
O'Quinn's big block
O'Quinn made the best Orlando play of the game at the 7:06 mark of the fourth quarter, rejecting Howard and sending the Amway Center crowd into a tizzy; some fans gave O'Quinn a standing ovation for his swat of the former Magic center.
"If we did anything against him, of course you expect that [crowd reaction]," O'Quinn said. "Regular defensive play for myself, but the fans liked it, so that's why they erupted like that. That's just me playing my game."
Given that, at the time of the block, Orlando had rattled off nine straight points, one might have expected the play to help its momentum. Instead, Houston seized control by scoring seven unanswered points in the next 90 seconds.