LOS ANGELES--Dwight Howard knows what's coming. Ear plugs would be a good start.
His dress rehearsal didn't go well a few months ago at Staples Center when he was booed incessantly and his team lost badly to the Los Angeles Clippers. Now he faces his past in his first road game against the Los Angeles Lakers since spurning them last July for a four-year, $88-million deal with the Houston Rockets.
It's easy to predict the most popular three-letter word Wednesday at Staples Center: b-o-o.
"I'm going to get a lot of boos," Howard said Tuesday after the Rockets practiced at UCLA. "I know I'm going to hear it the whole game -- 'Coward,' whatever.
"Thank God, this year I've been through it a lot in every city. There's Lakers fans everywhere. So I think I'm a little bit prepared for it."
It might irk some fans to hear it, but Howard said he hadn't kept track of the Lakers after taking $30 million less with Houston.
"I think I still might follow them on Twitter and that's about it," he said.
Howard, 28, was wooed unsuccessfully last summer by Dallas, Golden State, Atlanta and the Lakers, whose very public "STAY" billboard campaign couldn't keep him.
He thinks he made the right decision after a little more than seven months with Houston.
"No doubt," he said. "I did what was best for me and at the end of the day, that's the only thing that matters. I have no regrets.
"I wasn't afraid of any bright lights or any pressure. I just felt like Houston was the best place for me."
The Rockets finished eighth in the Western Conference last season but vaulted to third last week after a seven-game winning streak that took their record to 36-17.
Meanwhile, the Lakers (18-35) have lost a team-record seven consecutive home games.
"Dwight's one of those guys that I think he plays better when he's having a good time and comfortable," Houston Coach Kevin McHale said. "He's been tremendous for us and getting better all the time.
"When I watched him last year, he just looked out of sorts the whole year. What caused that? I would tell you that 70 percent of that was physical with his back and probably a third of that was environmental. I guess it was a funky environment."
Howard and Kobe Bryant never developed much of anything together in their one season wearing the same uniform.
It wasn't like the animosity Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal felt for each other when they were somehow winning championships, but it was an awkward season that ended with the Lakers being swept by San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs.
Howard is no longer slowed by shoulder and back pain and has a better burst these days. His stats reflect it.
He's averaging 18.8 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 58.1 percent, increases from 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 57.8 percent last season.
"A lot of things that (fans) were accustomed to me doing, I couldn't do them," he said. "I think people were upset about that."
Interestingly, his free-throw shooting has improved to 54.6 percent; it was only 49.2 percent with the Lakers.
Lakers fans will surely put him to the test vocally when he's at the line.
McHale had some final advice for Howard before Wednesday's game.
"Fans are the fans. They don't score points," he said. "If they boo ya, they boo ya. Just got to go play."
Gasol still around
The Lakers are running out of time to trade Pau Gasol and his hefty $19.3-million salary. The deadline is Thursday at noon Pacific.
Phoenix is the closest match the Lakers have had for Gasol recently, though the teams remain apart in assessing his value.
The Suns could potentially own four first-round picks in this year's draft, and two might be in the top 15 -- the Suns hold Washington's and Minnesota's picks, either of which would appease the Lakers. Phoenix also has two less-valuable picks -- its own and Indiana's.
Gasol is questionable for Wednesday's game because of a strained groin.
Gasol seemed nostalgic when asked by the Los Angeles Times about team owner Jerry Buss exactly one year after his death.
"He saw things in a way nobody else did," Gasol said Tuesday. "He was definitely one of a kind, a person who was responsible for all the success of this franchise."
How has the franchise handled things without him?
"It's been tough," Gasol said. "I think he's a very difficult person to replace."
Bryant doing fine
Bryant has played only six games this season, but his popularity remains as strong as ever.
He made $34 million in endorsements last year, second only to LeBron James ($42 million), according to Forbes.
Nike is Bryant's main source of endorsement income, and he also has deals with Turkish Air, Lenovo electronics, Hublot watches and Panini sports memorabilia.
Bryant makes $30.5 million from the Lakers in salary this season.
Meeks to return
Shooting guard Jodie Meeks will play against Houston after missing six games because of a sprained ankle.
Nick Young (fractured knee) and Jordan Farmar (strained hamstring) aren't expected to play Wednesday.
(Times correspondent Eric Pincus contributed to this report.)
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