| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES As the Houston Rockets pummeled the overmatched Los Angeles Lakers, center Dwight Howard watched and flashed a smile even wider than the gap between his new team and his old one.
Howard faced the Lakers crowd at the Staples Center on Wednesday for the first time since he left LA for Houston as a free agent last summer, and the Laker faithful did their best to sour his return.
They booed at every opportunity, chanted derisively, and wore Howard jerseys from his lone Lakers season that were altered to read "Coward."
But as it turned out, Howard had too many reasons to be happy.
The big man put up 20 points and 13 rebounds as Houston demolished the Lakers 134-108 and a cheerful Howard once again departed Los Angeles on his own terms, leaving the Lakers franchise scrambling in his wake.
"In order to enjoy this game, you have to be free," Howard told reporters about his upbeat attitude during the game.
"I get out there and just want to have as much fun as I can. Basketball is the best job I could ever have. Why not be free when I'm doing it?"
Howard would not say it explicitly, but the bounce in his step and game appears to be a direct result of leaving the Lakers.
After being traded prior to them last season by the Orlando Magic, Howard suffered through a long nightmare of injuries and disharmony on his new team.
The 2013-14 campaign has brought a radical turnaround for Howard.
Houston (37-17) is third in the Western Conference and riding an eight-game winning streak that has seen Howard average 24.1 points and 12.2 rebounds.
Against the Lakers at Staples Center, Howard scored his team's first six points, and even got a fun-loving technical foul for taunting after throwing down a monster dunk - though Howard said he was only trash-talking a friend sitting in the front row.
"Dwight Howard has had fun playing basketball, for the most part, all year long," said Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
"He's enjoyed playing, and I think that's a big part of that. If you enjoy what you're doing, you do it better."
The Lakers, meanwhile, reached their lowest point of the season with their eighth straight home loss on the night they hosted the player they had thought would be a key to their revival.
With the loss to the Rockets, Los Angeles (18-36) fell into a tie for last place in the Western Conference.
Just as telling, the team traded away starting guard Steve Blake just before tipoff, abandoning this lost season with a move toward rebuilding for the future.
The Lakers' misfortune was not lost on Howard.
"They're fighting injuries again. Losing Steve Blake is a big blow," said Howard. "(But) I can't focus on the Lakers; mine is on the Rockets and what we're trying to accomplish."