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LOS ANGELES – As Dwight Howard walked off the floor to a torrent of boos before his first road game in front of Lakers fans since he left for Houston last summer, the center encountered two men above the tunnel waving No. 12 jerseys at him.
Friendly faces? Not this night. Both had scribbled out the "H" in Howard's last name on the backs of their jerseys and replaced it with a "C".
If sharing the Los Angeles spotlight with Kobe Bryant grew tiresome for Howard during his lone season with the Lakers, perhaps jilting one of the NBA's most revered franchises in free agency was the ideal antidote. Howard had the attention of Lakers fans all to himself throughout Houston's 134-108 victory Wednesday night as a sellout Staples Center crowd spewed hate at him from the moment he first peeked his head out of the tunnel until long after the game was out of reach.
All the taunts and catcalls seemed to fuel Howard because the more Lakers fans heckled him, the better he played.
When they booed after his face appeared on the video board during the national anthem, he responded with a smile. When they booed even louder after he touched the ball for the first time during the opening possession, he responded with a smooth low post move for a basket. And when they really let him have it after he received a first-quarter technical for screaming after a dunk, he responded on the next possession by out-muscling Chris Kaman for an offensive board and rattling the rim with another two-handed slam.
Howard tallied a double-double by halftime and finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter. It was an especially satisfying performance for Howard considering he was seldom able to show Los Angeles fans the full extent of his capabilities when he was wearing a Lakers uniform.
"I think the atmosphere got everybody hyped tonight," Howard said. "My teammates, the first thing they said is they wanted to win this game for me. I just wanted to go out and set the tone and I'm happy we got the win."
The strong performance from Howard was no surprise to any of his teammates given how well he has played the past month.
In Houston's seven-game win streak leading up to the All-Star break, Howard averaged 24.7 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, helping the Rockets ascend to third in the Western Conference. Houston has also gone from 16th in field-goal percentage defense last season with Omer Asik at center to fifth so far this year.
Two big reasons for Howard's February surge are that he's more comfortable with his teammates in Houston than he was in L.A. and that they're finally figuring out how to feed him effectively in the post and around the rim. Howard has also showed flashes of the explosiveness he lacked last season when he was still ailing after undergoing back surgery in April 2012.
"I think his health is the biggest part," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "When we signed him in July, my biggest concern was the report we got back from our training staff and the doctors. He was really deficient. When he played last year, he was really beat up. He had to get back to health first.
"And Dwight's a guy that when he's happy, he plays better. He didn't seem happy last year. Not every situation is great. But I'm glad he's playing well for us."
It has to be galling for Lakers fans to see Howard playing at a higher level with the Rockets than he ever achieved during his lone season in Los Angeles.
When the Lakers traded for Howard and landed Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade during summer 2012, they believed they had a nucleus that could compete for a championship the next few years before Bryant retired and Howard supplanted him as the face of the franchise. Sports Illustrated even ran a photo of Howard and veteran guard Steve Nash together on its cover with a headline of, "Now this is going to be fun." Alas, It wasn't.
An aging Nash played in barely half the Lakers' games during the 2012-13 season due to injuries and produced his worst statistical season in 13 years. The back surgery that Howard underwent the previous spring robbed him of his otherworldly athleticism and contributed to him enduring a subpar season, as did his increasing discontent with the coaching philosophies of Mike D'Antoni and the all-business leadership style of Bryant.
Bryant began training camp that year promising mentee Howard he'd be ready to take the torch someday without any hiccups, but the shooting guard's intensity and perfectionism soon clashed with the center's carefree, fun-loving approach. Howard also grew impatient about supplanting Bryant as the franchise's alpha dog and frequently bristled at not being a primary scoring option in D'Antoni's pick-and-roll-heavy system.
It might seem strange that the Lakers still put on a full-court press to keep Howard even after all that turmoil, but team officials didn't want to let a franchise center walk away for nothing. They even tried to woo the free agent-to-be by hanging a handful of billboards urging Howard to stay, only to see him spurn the Lakers' five-year, $118 million offer in favor of a four-year, $87.6 million deal from the Rockets.
Does Howard have any regrets about his brief Lakers tenure? Only one, he says.
"I just wish I would have waited until I got healthy to play," he said. "Everything happens for a reason. Coming off back surgery is tough. I wanted to come out here and show the fans I'm about winning, but unfortunately I wasn't healthy enough and neither was the team."
Who can blame Howard for being happy to be in Houston rather than Los Angeles considering the chasm in the standings between the Rockets and Lakers? Houston is chasing Oklahoma City and San Antonio for the West's best record. Los Angeles is shedding contracts and counting the days until the NBA draft.
The contentment of Howard was obvious in his relaxed demeanor as he entered Staples Center about 90 minutes before tipoff Wednesday night. He shook hands with familiar faces in the hallways. He joked with Los Angeles-based reporters he recognized. And he wrapped a Lakers equipment manager in a bear hug in the locker room.
Howard couldn't keep himself from smiling on the bench late in the game. As a section of Lakers fans chanted "Howard sucks," the Houston center made a show of doing the chant along with them.
"I just want to have as much fun as I can," Howard explained afterward.
Maybe Howard couldn't silence the most hostile crowd of his career, but he was going to make sure they knew they couldn't spoil his good spirits.