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Fran Blinebury

Point guards Jason Kidd (left) and Russell Westbrook look to propel their team into the Final stage.
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Youth and experience collide in this Texas-Oklahoma matchup

Posted May 17 2011 8:37AM

DALLAS -- Where is the Cotton Bowl with its history and nostalgia and the perfectly split crowd meeting at the 50-yard line?

Where is Big Tex, the giant inflatable cowboy, to stand tall over the State Fair?

Where are the carnival rides, the midway booths full of stuffed animals, the roast turkey legs and the deep fried Twinkies?

Where are Bob Stoops, Mack Brown, Barry Switzer, Darrell Royal, the Sooner Schooner and Bevo?

When Texas and Oklahoma square off, it is usually prudent to wear helmets. And by the time the Mavericks and Thunder finish their best-of-seven set in the Western Conference finals, somebody might wish they'd remembered that.

"This could take the Texas-Oklahoma thing to whole new level," said center Kendrick Perkins, who hails from Beaumont, Texas, but now toils in Oklahoma City.

You could call it the Red River Rivalry in short pants and high-tops or choose to view it as two NBA franchises at vastly different stages in their development.

The Mavericks have been a standard of regular-season excellence, having won 50 or more games for 11 consecutive years. The Thunder are just two years removed from finishing 23-59.

The Mavs are the grizzled bunch, led by 13-year veteran Dirk Nowitzki and 38-year-old Jason Kidd, both of whom probably own clothes that are older than the Thunder's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, 22.

For the Thunder, this is probably speeding up the process of becoming a championship contender by a year or two. For the Mavs, it could be one last chance to hold off the calendar and reach back to claim the title they should have won in 2006.

For the Thunder, it's a case of out of the frying pan and into the microwave as they go from having to deal with a relentless low post force that was Memphis power forward Zach Randolph to having to tangle with his Dallas counterpart in Nowitzki, whose offensive range extends to virtually any spot on the court.

For the Mavericks, to extend the cooking metaphor, it's the next stop along an all-you-can-eat buffet line where Dallas will be sampling its third different dish in terms of style of play after Portland and the L.A. Lakers.

The youthful Thunder will surely be more formidable for the Mavs to handle than the erstwhile champion Lakers in the previous round. For one thing, OKC will actually attempt to defend the 3-point shot and the Thunder are quite capable of making effective use of the long shots on offense.

The been-there-done-that Mavs will be the toughest test yet for the Thunder, who are coming off a series where the No. 8 seed Grizzlies were just as green and unfamiliar to the whole playoff scene. The Mavs know exactly what they want to do and will beat the Thunder over the head with it if Kidd and Nowitzki get their chance.

The Thunder want to stomp down hard on the gas pedal and turn the series into an up-and-down transition game, where their young legs and quick hands would be an advantage.

"Ballhandling is going to be more important in this series," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "Portland and L.A. were big rebounding teams and that was a huge emphasis. You never want to turn the ball over, but neither one of those teams forced turnovers or get as many steals as these guys.

"They are firing major athletes at you -- great speed and quickness at three or four positions. The transition defense has got to be a mindset, just like rebounding. It goes without saying, but if we turn the ball over in this next series, we'll lose. It's as simple as that."

"Our game is based on getting defensive stops," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Once we get stops, we can use the quickness of our athletic wings to get out in transition and score."

The Thunder scored 125 fast-break points in the seven-game series against Memphis, but shot just 41.9 percent when forced to set up in a half-court offense.

Their offense will likely come eventually for the young Thunder. The bigger challenge could be finding a way to stop Nowitzki, who might be playing consistently better than anyone else left in the playoffs.

"He's a handful," Brooks said. "Whether it's Nick (Collison), Kevin, whoever we throw on him, we're going to have to do a great job of keeping an eye on him."

In the other handful, OKC's Durant and Westbrook were the second-highest scoring pair of teammates in the league this season, behind only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami. Those young legs can go end-to-end and fill up the basket fast.

"We're the oldest team still playing, but that means we're experienced," said the Mavs' Shawn Marion. "We've got a lot of guys on this team we can show them. And they're young. It's just about us taking care of business."

However, the Thunder figure they've grown up considerably through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

"The age is out in the window now," Brooks said.

"We're not done yet," said teammate James Harden.

Even without Bevo and the Sooner Schooner, with these two teams butting heads, the short pants version could take the Red River Rivalry to new heights.

Someone might want to keep those helmets handy, just in case.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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