Successful launch for Dwight Howard

HOUSTON -- Dwight Howard survived a chance encounter in the hallway with Mark Cuban, rampant intentional fouling in the third quarter and several uncomfortable possessions in isolation as the primary defender asked to track Dirk Nowitzki.

The secret song he said he sings in his head at the free throw line did not survive. It was "too fast," Howard said, so he's changing it to something slower for Saturday night's visit to Utah.


He scraped through Act 1 of his own personal Path Not Taken Week insisting that nothing served up by the Dallas Mavericks really rattled him Friday night. Not the Hack-A-Dwight strategy that coerced an 0-for-6 start at the line for Howard in the second half ... and not Cuban's first real dose of mischief-making for the season in which the Mavericks' pot-stirring owner described Dwight's decision to choose Houston over Dallas in free agency as a "mistake in judgment."

"What would you want him to say?" Howard offered after contributing 13 points and 16 rebounds to the Rockets' 113-105 triumph, which the hosts secured thanks mostly to James Harden's electric 34 points and helped along by Dirk Nowitzki's highly uncharacteristic foul trouble.

"He's taking up for his team. I would do the same thing if somebody didn't want to come with me. I would think they're making a bad decision."

Rest assured that Howard, apart from the free throw song he refuses to reveal beyond the fact he's scrapping it, won't be second-guessing much two games in. Despite the loss of perimeter defensive ace Patrick Beverley to a torn stomach muscle for the next two weeks, Houston just held its second straight opponent to worse than 40 percent shooting from the floor.

Further debate about Howard's choices, though, is inevitable and immediately unavoidable once you take a glimpse at the Rockets' upcoming schedule.

On Monday night, Dwight will be back in Los Angeles for the first time since becoming the most marquee free agent in league history to walk away from the Lakers when L.A. wanted him back. Doesn't matter that this particular game happens to be against the Clippers; all of Howard's old friends in the SoCal media will be there to dissect the summer all over again.

Then on Thursday, back in Houston, it'll be Rockets-Lakers for the first time with Dwight sporting red and white.

Even at the Toyota Center -- and even with Kobe Bryant still sidelined -- you don't need too many guesses to forecast what sort of storylines will be coming out of that one.

Like we said: Path Not Taken Week.

"There's no need to be mad," Howard said of Cuban's rant. "He said what he had to say. We talked about it already. I totally understand. It's business."

They crossed paths some 90 minutes before Friday night's opening tip. Cuban explained himself, then explained his explanation to a pregame gaggle of reporters.

Howard, though, didn't address the matter until after the win. Not until he had steadied himself to make five of his final six free throws on a night that belonged just as much to Houston's Omri Casspi and Dallas' Gal Mekel in the first NBA game to feature two Israelis.

"I really wasn't upset about it," Howard said of the initial attack, adding that he and Cuban quickly moved on in their conversation.

"We laughed and talked about other things."

It's early, true, but you can certainly pick up on how much lighter the general mood is around Howard in his new life as a Rocket. One of the surest signs he is feeling at ease in his surroundings: He could be heard doing Kevin McHale impressions for the media every day this week.

Howard's Stan Van Gundy impressions are legendary back in Orlando, but it's safe to say you didn't hear him giving us his best Mike D'Antoni much last season.

Try close to never.

It's obviously way too early for judgments of any kind, but he's looking engaged on the court most of all, which was always among the loudest complaints about Dwight in Lakerland.

Although he's actually been on the floor next to Omer Asik for less than 20 minutes total in Houston's two victories, Howard is trying hard to give the impression (A) that he knows (and accepts) the offense will be running through Harden and (B) that he'll go out on the perimeter if necessary to chase whomever he's ordered to chase.

On Harden, Howard said: "That's one of the reasons that I came here. To play alongside him."

And on trying to keep up with the more mobile likes of Nowitzki, Howard said: "It shows the team that I'm down for anything."

So far, so good. Even though the hosts couldn't sustain their blistering 38-point opening quarter and had to weather a bizarre barrage of Jae Crowder 3-pointers in garbage time, which made the finish unexpectedly close, Houston looked a lot better than it did in Wednesday's sloppy home win over Charlotte, when Opening Night Hero Ball seemed to infect the team.

"Dwight doesn't care about [Cuban's comments]," Rockets forward (and chief Howard confidant) Chandler Parsons said.

"He knows this team is the perfect fit for him. He knows he's on a really good team that can contend for a championship right now with really good players around him. So I think him being here ... he would know better if he made a mistake or not. You can ask him, but I don't think he would agree with that."

Nope. Not at all.

"I have to do what's best for Dwight," Howard said, sounding like a man fairly convinced he already has.