The 7-feet-6 Yao went 8-for-13 from the field and also blocked two shots. He played 38 minutes and got some help from 7-2 Dikembe Mutombo in handling Howard, the NBA's leading rebounder and shot blocker.
"He keeps getting stronger and he has quickness," said Yao, in his seventh season. "He has learned a lot of offensive skills. I'm just going to hang in there and hopefully next year, we can match up."
Ron Artest had 16 points and matched a season high with seven assists, and reserve Von Wafer scored 14 points for the Rockets, who stayed a half-game behind San Antonio in the race for the Southwest Division.
The Rockets held the Magic -- the third-highest scoring team in the East -- to their lowest point total since Feb. 11. Orlando went 10-for-28 from 3-point range and shot 38 percent for the game.
"The defense was good, we helped each other out," Artest said. "We stuck to the game plan."
Howard had 13 points and 10 rebounds, but went 3-for-9 from the free-throw line for the Magic, who slipped one game behind second-place Boston in the Eastern Conference standings.
"I don't even know what to say about it," Howard said of the matchup with Yao. "He shot the ball well and I got a little too frustrated with the way the game was being called and didn't play my game."
Alston was the first Orlando player introduced and got mostly cheered. He ran to the Rockets' bench and slapped hands with his former teammates, then shook hands with team owner Leslie Alexander and embraced Houston's five starters before the opening tip.
The rest of the game belonged to Yao and the Rockets.
"I had a great time, but unfortunately, my team didn't win," Alston said. "They are a great defensive team. We didn't sustain the pace we wanted to and didn't establish Howard inside."
Yao hit two hook shots and another from the baseline over Howard in the first six minutes, while Howard missed his first two shots and coughed up a turnover. The Magic started 4-for-12 from the field, but three of the baskets were 3-pointers and they trailed only 12-11.
Yao then blocked Howard's shot and dunked at the other end, part of a quick 7-0 Houston spurt.
Carl Landry started the second quarter for Houston, his first action since he was shot in the left calf in a late-night altercation on a city street on March 17. Wearing an elastic sleeve on his calf, Landry swished his first shot, a jumper from the free-throw line.
"It's been a long three weeks, probably the longest three weeks of my life," said Landry, who played 20 minutes. "Just being out there with my teammates and seeing everybody happy and excited for me to be back, it was a great feeling."
With Howard resting on Orlando's bench, Yao and the Rockets stretched the lead to 40-30 in the first seven minutes of the second quarter. Howard returned with 5:19 left in the half, but Artest sank a 3-pointer to give Houston a 13-point lead, its biggest of the game.
Houston outrebounded Orlando 23-20 and held Howard to eight points in the first half to lead 47-38.
The Rockets committed three turnovers in the first three minutes after halftime and the Magic cut the lead to 50-47. Houston went 8-for-22 from the field with four turnovers but still headed to the fourth quarter leading 67-59 -- the Magic failed to gain much ground in the third by going 7-for-19 from the field.
"Shots we normally make, we missed," Howard said. "We just didn't play with the energy and effort that we needed."
The Rockets led 71-65 when Wafer drove past J.J. Redick for a reverse layup with 7:51 left in the game. Yao came out for a quick rest and Mutombo replaced him, immediately forcing another miss by Howard. Artest scored to extend the Houston lead to 76-65.
Yao returned with 3:50 left and promptly hit a long jumper for an 84-74 Houston lead. The Magic couldn't muster much of a rally and lost to Houston for the 12th time in the last 14 meetings.
- Yao has six straight double-doubles.
- Howard has 60 double-doubles this season.
- The Rockets improved to 32-8 at home, their highest win total in six seasons at the Toyota Center.