Lakers anticipate Dwight Howard receiving a negative reception

Houston’s Dwight Howard walked away from the Lakers as a free agent after last season, but returns to face them tonight. ANDY HOLMZMAN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Houston’s Dwight Howard walked away from the Lakers as a free agent after last season, but returns to face them tonight. ANDY HOLMZMAN — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to anticipate the fan reaction once Dwight Howard steps on the court when the Lakers (18-35) host the Houston Rockets (36-17) tonight at Staples Center.

“I think he’s not going to expect a great [reception],” Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. “I think that’s fair to say.”

Yes it is.

Howard has already played against the Lakers twice this season since leaving them this summer for Houston. Howard also returned to Staples Center in November for a regular-season game against the Clippers. But tonight marks the first time Howard will enter Staples Center with the Lakers playing on the floor. The last time this happened, Howard walked off the court with an ejection in the Lakers’ Game 4-clinching loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

Plenty of Lakers fans voiced their disapproval then, a season-long’s worth of frustration of Howard’s unhealthy and drama-filled season coinciding with the Lakers’ $100 million payroll coming no where close to another NBA championship.

“I don’t think it will be too, too positive,” Lakers guard Jordan Farmar said. “I think they’ll let him feel how they feel, especially after a frustrating year.”

The Lakers are still going through frustrations with a tie for last place in the Western Conference and a the team missing a combined 191 games due to injuries, a league high. Both Kobe Bryant (fractured left knee), Steve Nash (nerve irritation in back) and Nick Young (fractured left knee) won’t play against Houston. It’s unclear if Gasol (strained right groin) or Farmar (torn left hamstring) will suit up.

Could this give the under-manned Lakers an extra jolt of energy?

“We’ll see,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I would hope not in the sense of you should love to play for the Lakers. That should be enough motivation to give it everything you got.”

Instead, D’Antoni worried about the Rockets, who have won seven consecutive games and are ranked third place in the Western Conference. Howard has also averaged 18.8 points on 58.1 percent shooting and 12.5 rebounds, an improvement from the 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds he posted last season with the Lakers. After shooting only 49.2 percent from the foul line in his lone season with the Lakers, Howard has relatively improved with a 58.1 percent clip.

“Dwight’s a physical presence. You can use the Hack a Rule,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll see. But he’s starting to make his foul shots better, so you have to be careful.”

The Lakers were also careful not to provide any additional bulletin board material. The Lakers downplayed the notion that Howard’s departure signals the team’s ability to secure high-level free agents isn’t as strong as it once was. But at least publicly, the Lakers remained deferential toward Howard’s decision to leave them.

“He felt somewhere else he had a better chance and it was a better fit for him,” Gasol said. “It was his freedom to make that decision. I respect that from that standpoint. Everyone should have a choice.”

It’s safe to say the Lakers fans at Staples Center won’t feel the same way.

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@langnews.com

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