CLEVELAND -- As the waning minutes of the Minnesota Timberwolves' win over the Atlanta Hawks played out on the television in the Cleveland Cavaliers' postgame locker room Wednesday, Cleveland's players were left to reflect on another team that many believe will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come: the Milwaukee Bucks.
Put aside the debate about whether the Karl-Anthony Towns/Andrew Wiggins duo is better than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker for a moment. That argument could go on for hours and can't be sufficiently answered until we see which pair continues to improve over time. What is clear after Cleveland finished its back-to-back set with Milwaukee with a pair of hard-fought wins is that the defending champs know the Bucks are in their rear view and might be closer than they appear.
"How far down the line?" LeBron James said when asked about the playoff potential of the 13-14 Bucks, who are in a virtual tie with Atlanta for the No. 8 seed in the way-too-early playoff standings. "How far we talkin'?"
This year. A couple of years down the line?
"The next several years they could be really, really good," James said, using two intensifiers to describe the squad coached by his old Olympic teammate/Finals foe, Jason Kidd. "For me, I'm ready for whatever matchup. It doesn't matter if it's this year, or if it's several years -- I'm going to be ready for it. If I'm even fortunate enough to be in the playoffs at that point in time, so, we'll see."
James thought enough of Milwaukee to insist on playing in Wednesday's 113-102 win even though he logged 47 minutes in Cleveland's overtime win on the road against the Bucks the night before.
When Antetokounmpo started racking up triple-doubles last season, he started being mentioned with James as analysts searched to find a comparable multi-faceted talent. Parker, meanwhile, has been on the King's radar for years, having played in the LeBron James Skills Academy in 2011.
James has been respectful and supportive in his public comments about Parker and Antetokounmpo, offering stock answers about their potential rather than resorting to his go-to quote of, "I don't know, I'm not a GM," when he doesn't want to talk about a rising star for whatever reason.
Yet privately, after the Bucks beat the pants off the Cavs 118-101 on Nov. 29, James was less than impressed with how Parker and Antetokounmpo clearly played at a higher level against the Cavs than they normally do. That made James wonder why Parker and Antetokounmpo don't make that level of play their standard and become true professionals.
James gave them a living, breathing example of what a pro looks like in his prime, putting up 29 points, nine rebounds and six assists Wednesday after putting up 34 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists Tuesday. By some measures, he has never played better.
While his minutes per game in the month of December are the highest they've been since he was 22 years old, his production in some areas is at an all-time high. The nine 3s he hit in the back-to-back games against the Bucks was one off his career best for 3s in a two-game span (he made 10 on March 3-4, 2009, according to ESPN Stats & Information). He's hitting 40.4 percent from 3 this month, which would be just the third time in his career he has been so accurate from downtown in December. And he's averaging 8 assists per game this month, an average he has reached only two other times in December.
Meanwhile, the Cavs have won eight of their past nine games, including all eight in which James played. The losses that preceded it, a three-game skid, started with that drubbing in Milwaukee. It was a loss that stuck with Kyrie Irving as well.
Asked about a potential playoff series with the Bucks, Irving said, "I hope, man. I hope. They're a great young team. It would be great to go four games against them. I'm fired up to go against them every time now, for real. Ever since they kicked our ass in Milwaukee, it's been personal, and it's going to continue to be personal."
It's enough to officially grant Milwaukee "that team" status for the Cavs. You know, that team that Cavs fans would just rather avoid when the playoff bracket gets decided. Two seasons ago, "that team" was Miami because of all the emotional warfare a series in South Beach could play with James' mind. Last season, "that team" was the Pacers, with their dynamic star Paul George returning to form and their propensity to seemingly always have the Cavs' number when they travel to Indiana.
This season, with Kidd on the sideline, Antetokounmpo and Parker on the wings, Khris Middleton potentially returning with his 3-point range and, let's not forget, Matthew Dellavedova mucking up the Cavs' schemes with his diehard grit and institutional knowledge, it has got to be the Bucks.
It would be a fun series to watch. Or, you know, it could just go four games as Irving intimated. It's personal.