As usual, the Heat's chances will come down to this guy. (Getty Images)

Road to the Finals looks at the teams who have a legitimate shot at the NBA title. Today we continue with the Miami Heat. 

What are the Miami Heat?

OK, they're a basketball team. We've got that. They're a good basketball team. That's pretty evident considering they're in the hunt for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They're a talented, good basketball team. They're a talented, good basketball team that plays defense well and can make cool highlights, who a lot of people really despise.

That's pretty much all we know.

The Heat enter the playoffs as what is considered by many to be the favorites to win the NBA title, despite Chicago's impressive showing this year and their regular season dominance of them headed into Thursday night's game in Miami. The thought is that Chicago has not advanced enough to get over the problems that plagued them last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, nor are they healthy enough to topple Miami.

But that's about Chicago. Not Miami. And the reason that so many hold back from feeling confident about the Heat winning a title and wiping that grin off all their critics' faces is simple.

We don't know who they are.

We should know. The Heat play a similar style of defense as the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, focusing on strong rotations and help, while adjusting slightly this year to attempt to create more turnovers to utilize their athleticism in the open court. They have three identifiable stars with specific skill sets. They have knockdown shooters. They have an attitude. But they lack an identity. Still, nearly two years after "The Decision," we don't know how to define this team.

The offense is still obstructed by complications over what every player does. While I just said that each player has a specific skill set, and they do, how they use those is where things get tricky. Is Dwyane Wade primarily an off-ball player, who catches and shoots and drifts and cuts? Is LeBron James the point forward or a low-post player or the finisher once Wade draws the defense? Well, kind of all of the above. Is Chris Bosh an invaluable third weapon who can destroy the opponent with his mid-range jumper, or is he a player who doesn't challenge enough at the rim for being the third star on the team?

Is Udonis Haslem their X-factor? Is it Mike Miller? Is it Mario Chalmers? Norris Cole?

The point is that we shouldn't have this many questions about the title favorite. We should know who this team is. We should have a strong sense of who they are and what they do cohesively, not just "they're so good in transition," and "they defend well." They have elements, not an identity.

So how are they still the favorites?

They're really, very good.

We can talk about the clutch issues, but to do so you have to talk about how they're in nearly every game they play. We can talk about how dysfunctional their offense gets at times, but that ignores their third rank in offensive efficiency. We can talk bout their inability to defend the rim, but that ignores their second rank in opponent field goal percentage at the rim, their third rank at field goals made there. Everything with the Heat is complicated. It's not as simple as "they're inconsistent" or "they're incomplete." Everything is there or them to be a truly great team, and yet it's not together.

The Heat are judged by a different standard than any other team in the league. That's the reality of both "The Decision" and the subsequent fireworks-laden antics, and their status as having three of the best 15 players in the league (it was top five when they got together, which tells you a lot about how Chris Bosh's public perception has changed).

They are expected to be a great team. The problem is that in analyzing that, we too often start to think they're not a good team. The emotional reaction to this team jumps them to be "flawed" or "not that good." And that's nonsense. This team is incredible when everything is clicking for it. At its best, they are better than every other team. That's the best way to describe it, now that I think about it.

The Heat's best is better than any other team's best, but they hit their best less than about half the league. Their not-best is still better than a lot of team's bests, and their average is better than any other team's average outside of Chicago, and so you get their record. But this is what keeps them from being great.

So what's the Heat's road to the Finals?

They're going to be tested, early. They'll most likely face a Knicks team that has played them tight the last two years. New York features the center that demolished them in the Finals, and Carmelo Anthony who as huge games against them consistently. The Heat can't coast through that series like they did against Philadelphia last year.

Then it's a probable matchup with either Indiana or Boston in the second round. The Heat have to feel good about beating Indiana, even with the Pacers' inside presence. The Celtics, though...

Even after last season, the Celtics have the capacity to take down Miami. The Heat steamrolled the Celtics last year, but this team is built a bit differently and is desperate for one more stab at the title. It's just not as simple as saying, "the Heat won convincingly last year, so they'll win the same way this year." Neither team is the same.

Should they make it past the Celtics, it's Chicago, again.

Can they do what they did last year, where Erik Spoelstra badly out-coached Tom Thibodeau? Can they contain Rip Hamilton? Can Chris Bosh win the matchup against Carlos Boozer again? And most importantly, can they keep the Bulls' second unit off the offensive glass? The Bulls present a huge challenge to Miami, for one simple reason.

They always try, with everything they have, on every possession. Miami hates teams like that, gets blown back by teams like that. The Heat can break Chicago's will, but it means establishing that identity that's been missing.

The standard thought process is that the Heat have been coasting, saving it, and in the playoffs will fully unleash the team that at times I have described as the Flying Death Machine. A team that shuts down your offense, swarms to the ball, kicks the outlet pass, and finishes in transition with the best combination of athleticism we may have ever seen on one team outside of perhaps Showtime.

That's what they have to do, every game, for 40 minutes. They don't need to slow it down, grind it out. They need to break it open, smother, attack, and repeat. That's who they can be, that's how they reach their best.

This is a chance for redemption. It's also a dangerous place. Fail, and the Heat will be solidified as one of the most disappointing teams in NBA history. Succeed, and the entire narrative changes for people outside of Ohio.

People will talk about LeBron James needing to play in the post, needing to take the big shot, needing to hit the big shot, needing to do this or that or the other thing. But the biggest thing James needs to do?

He needs to lead. He needs to set an example, exert his will, and force the Heat to have the identity that they can win with. Do that, and the talent on the team takes care of the rest.

As always, everything comes down to LeBron.