By Jahmal Corner
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Dwight Howard may have left Los Angeles to join the Houston Rockets, but the big man still cannot escape his turbulent Lakers chapter.
A jilted fan base still ruing his California departure and questioning his motives for leaving greeted him on Monday as the Rockets faced the Los Angeles Clippers in Staples Center, where the Lakers also play their home games.
The Clippers battered the Rockets 137-118 and Howard bore the brunt of the blows in his first visit to the arena since he walked away from the Lakers as a free agent in the off-season.
The passionate crowd booed Howard from pregame warmups until the final buzzer, leaving the big man to wonder whether he had just played in front of "undercover Lakers fans."
He once again defended his decision to become a Rocket.
"Houston is a great place, this is a great team. I'm happy with where I'm at," Howard told reporters following the defeat. "Everybody should move forward. This is my life. I can't control what other people do with their lives."
Howard managed to play just 26 minutes against the Clippers due to early foul trouble and finished with 13 points and nine rebounds while the Rockets clearly missed his presence in surrendering a scoring explosion.
"Dwight is our anchor on the defensive end. It always helps to have him out there," said Houston coach Kevin McHale. "That never helps us (when he's in foul trouble)."
The defeat was the first of the season for Houston (3-1) which has enjoyed an early honeymoon with Howard.
Since signing a four-year, $88 million dollar contract with the Rockets, Howard has looked intent on proving his worth.
He appears slimmer, and healthier than he was a season ago when he was plagued by back and shoulder issues, and is back to ferocious defending and rebounding after grabbing 26 boards in the Rockets' season opener.
"I'm not 100 percent, (but) I'm doing whatever I can to feel better and feel good," Howard said. "(Houston) is a great city, I love it."
Howard's love for his newfound city is the last thing Los Angeles fans want to hear. They are still stung by a disastrous 2012-2013 season that included tension between Howard and Kobe Bryant, and saw championship ambitions ultimately dissolve into a first-round playoff exit.
Howard's own exit was the final bitter pill as he rejected the NBA's glamour franchise and even took less money to join Houston.
His Staples Center visit was a reminder of those hard feelings and they will only deepen when he returns to play the Lakers on February 19.
"It's just another game," Howard said, of the prospect of seeing the Lakers. "It's over with. I'm out of there."
But as the fans have indicated, all is not forgotten.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)