ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard is back to being a dominant presence in the paint on both ends of the floor.
Showing off his strength down low, Howard is starting to make a run toward leading the league in blocks and rebounds for the second straight season.
"I know that the only thing that is important is that if I'm blocking shots and rebounding we're going to win games," he said. "I have to do what it takes for our team to win -- and that's rebounding and blocking shots. It's about trust. I tell our guys I have your back."
Howard outmuscled a Rockets team lacking size and strength in the middle with Yao Ming injured. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year blocked four shots and showed how dominant he can be even when he doesn't have his best offensive game.
"He's sort of back where he belongs, rebounding and block shots," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "That's where we needed him. He has stepped it up in a big way now. He is really, really competing defensively and on the glass."
Jameer Nelson added 15 points in his first start since Nov. 16, helping the Magic win for the fifth time in six games ahead of a big Christmas Day matchup against the Boston Celtics.
Carl Landry had 20 points and Aaron Brooks finished with 17 for the Rockets, who could do little with Howard roaming the paint.
"He's very aggressive in there and he's strong," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "They do a nice job of spacing the court and finding their shooter with him in there."
Yao is out for the season while recovering from surgery to repair a hairline fracture in his left foot, and Howard didn't exactly miss the 7-foot-6 center on Wednesday.
Although it wasn't his biggest scoring night, Howard cleaned up the glass and swatted away mistakes on the defensive end. His presence in the paint led to a 15-0 run that put Orlando ahead 76-60 late in the third quarter.
The Rockets cut the deficit to eight late in the fourth, but Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter each hit a 3-pointer to help the Magic hold on. Carter had 18 points, but it was Howard who made things most difficult for Houston.
"It is almost impossible to contain him," said Luis Scola, who had 14 points for the Rockets. "There is not too much you can do when he gets down there. When he gets down there, it is going to be trouble."
Howard, who has struggled for most of his career against Yao, threw down a series of dunks in the opening quarter to get the Magic off to a fast start. And there were few second-chance shots for the Rockets.
"He's a rebounding machine," Nelson said. "Sometimes offensively, we don't even go for the rebounds because I think we all just assume he's going to get it."
Orlando ended the first quarter on a 14-2 spurt highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers by Ryan Anderson, taking a 34-22 lead.
Houston rallied in the second to close to 55-52 at halftime. The Rockets made five of 12 3-pointers in the opening half.
It was only the second time this season the Magic began the game with all their starters in the lineup, and they showed signs they can defend last season's Eastern Conference championship. They'll get another major test Friday when they host Boston.
Tracy McGrady, who is in the final year of his contract with the Rockets, said before the game he would be open to a return to Orlando but Houston is his first option. McGrady even joked about crashing at Carter's Isleworth mansion. The two are cousins. "I told him, hypothetically speaking, if I was to come back, I was going to rent out his guest house," said McGrady, who played for Orlando from 2000-04. ... Houston's Chase Budinger sat out with a sprained right ankle.