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Monday Morning Point Guard

Which one of us is going to take over? (Reuters Photo)

It's getting to be that time of the year, when the games start coming in rapid fire, the pressure rising to pipe-bursting levels, and the real contenders start to separate from the fake ones. In the Western Conference, where the teams seeded No. 2 and No. 9 are getting squeezed tighter and tighter, two teams -- Phoenix and Denver -- have started to show some cracks since the all-star break while two players -- Shaquille O'Neal and Carmelo Anthony -- have assumed positions on the spot.

O'Neal turned 37 last week, and he showed that he can be feisty in his old age, providing verbal beatdowns to anyone he perceived as challenging his legacy as an all-time great. After O'Neal discredited his apparent heir Dwight Howard for being unoriginal, Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy did what his young center couldn't do: He talked trash to The Big Grumpy.

O'Neal flopped trying to defend Howard late in a Phoenix loss, and Van Gundy called him out for it. When O'Neal found out that "a nobody" like Van Gundy had the nerve to make fun of him, O'Neal fired back with some of the most lethal and pointed vitriol a player has ever directed toward a former coach. O'Neal crossed the line of simply cracking jokes and got extremely personal, saying that Van Gundy was a "frontrunner" who will "panic" in the postseason for Orlando because he did in Miami. The attack basically revealed what most suspected when Pat Riley replaced Van Gundy in the 2005-06 season -- that O'Neal was culpable in Van Gundy's dismissal. It resulted in a championship, so who's complaining?

But any person with the gumption to attack O'Neal had best be prepared for O'Neal to attack candle fire with a flamethrower. Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh basically complained about the officiating after O'Neal scored 45 points and had to hear O'Neal call him "the RuPaul of big men."

The sad part about O'Neal's smack talk is that it is merely a distraction from the more pressing issues for O'Neal and the Phoenix Suns. With Amare Stoudemire out for the season after eye surgery, a team that was assembled with championship-starved veterans such as O'Neal, Steve Nash and Grant Hill will likely be on the outside looking in when the postseason begins. Hard to imagine a team with three combined most valuable player trophies and three NBA Finals MVP trophies would miss the playoffs. But with Stoudemire reduced to spectator that appears to be a foregone conclusion.

O'Neal has had a resurgence this season, but after the Suns lost four in a row last week on the 'Hate Shaq' Tour -- against Orlando, Miami, Houston and San Antonio -- they are slipping in the hotly contested West. And, new free agent pickup Stromile Swift isn't going to be the person that helps O'Neal avoid missing the postseason for the first time since his rookie year in Orlando. O'Neal lucked into his trade to Phoenix after his 15-year playoff run almost ended in Miami last season (talk about frontrunning?). But after the Suns failed to deal him to Cleveland, he won't get a bailout this time. For O'Neal to keep his playoff streak alive, his play, not his words, will have to carry the Suns.

I'm not going to zip my lip. Never have, and since I have four rings, never will. But can you be a leader, Melo? (AP Photo: Rick Scuteri)

As for Anthony, he had his annual mishap but failed to make a public apology after he was suspended for refusing to leave a game when Coach George Karl tried to substitute him. The suspension was announced the same day that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- his 2008 Olympic teammates and 2003 NBA draftmates -- staged an ESPN Classic in Miami, going for 40 apiece and showiing why they and Kobe Bryant lead the MVP conversations.

At this stage in his career, Anthony was supposed to be sharing the young star marquee with James and Wade. But with misstep after misstep, Anthony appears content with scoring a few points, fading in the first round and watching his peers shine from his couch like everybody else.

It was stunning when the coaches failed to put Anthony on the Western Conference all-star team, even though he missed a few weeks with a broken hand. How Anthony was left out of Phoenix in favor of David West was beyond me. But after being insubordinate to his head coach, you have wonder if coaches will ever give Anthony the benefit of the doubt -- which makes the final month of the season especially important for Anthony and the Nuggets. Given his sometimes rocky relationship with Karl, there is a good chance that at least one of them won't be back in Denver next season.

And, although Anthony returned from his suspension to score 38 points in a win against Portland on Thursday, the Nuggets lost back-to-back games to Utah and Sacramento (?!?) and find themselves in third place in the Northwest Division after sitting comfortably in first for most of the season.

The Nuggets need homecourt advantage in the first round to have a better chance of advancing to the second round for the first time since 1994. And, Anthony needs to finally win a playoff series to avoid joining Tracy McGrady on the first-round floppers list. Chauncey Billups has done wonders since returning to his hometown this season, but the Nuggets will go only as far as Anthony takes them. That's nothing new there. But if Anthony wants to be recognized as a true superstar, he has to play like one -- and carry himself like one. And there is no better time than right now.

By Michael Lee  |  March 9, 2009; 8:55 AM ET
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