The Miami Heat (27-12) should be relatively pleased with how they played in the first half of the 2012-13 NBA season. However, how many wins the Heat rack up in December and January won't mean anything to the franchise and its fans unless they have success come playoff time.
The Heat are the epitome of a championship-or-bust team. And the only way to win the NBA Finals is to get there. So, let's prognosticate whether Miami will reach the finals for the third consecutive year or if it will fall short.
The Heat play in the far inferior Eastern Conference, once again making their return to the Finals that much more likely.
Take a look at the current Eastern Conference standings.
As the records of the teams chasing Miami indicate, there just aren't that many, if any (excluding the Heat), great teams in the conference.
It was thought by many prior to the season that the Boston Celtics would be a prime threat to Miami in its title defense. However, the C's defense hasn't been able to outweigh the team's offensive problems as in past years. They are, at this moment, just barely a playoff team.
As of now, the Heat's biggest competitors in the conference would have to be the New York Knicks, the Indiana Pacers and possibly the Chicago Bulls if Derrick Rose is able to have an Adrian Peterson-like return from injury.
Now, you can look at those teams and whether one of them will be able knock the Heat out of this year's playoffs from two standpoints.
On one hand, it's telling about the quality of those three teams that in a season where the Heat have seemed to coast at times and play down to their competition (see video below) that Miami still tops the Eastern Conference and is beginning to pull away.
But on the other hand, the Heat have lost all four games they've played against those three East foes.
Still, if looking at it from the latter perspective, it needs to be noted that the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season.
It is the postseason when having top-tier talent is of the utmost importance. Benches shorten and playoff series' more often than not are decided by which team's best players are, well, better.
Just take a look at how the Heat won last season's championship. Miami rode its two biggest stars, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, throughout the title run with James playing 42.7 minutes per game (37.5 in regular season) and Wade playing 39.4 minutes per contest (33.2 in regular season).
James especially carried the Heat, averaging 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists in a historic postseason performance.
So while the Heat might be struggling right now against the East's top teams, none of those other teams have someone capable of doing this in an elimination game.
Also, what bodes well for the Heat is that, as previously mentioned, they currently are atop the East standings, which means they are on pace to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
That's a big deal for a 2012-13 Heat team that's been flat-out dominant at home, winning 17 out of its 20 contests in the AmericanAirlines Arena.
There's no way around it: Barring something unforeseen, the Heat will have by far the easiest path to the finals.
Also, they'll have to lose at least one game at home and will get to play any necessary Game 7's in Miami.
When you put forth those sorts of circumstances to a team that has LeBron James, who has established himself as the NBA's clear-cut best player, along with other superstars such as Wade and Chris Bosh, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the Heat don't reach the Finals again.
The most important question, really, is whether the Heat will be able to take down whichever fantastic team represents the West.
Note: Statistics are accurate as of January 23