MIAMI — It's tough to get a firm grasp on the Miami Heat, because even after 42 games together, they still don't know themselves.
They've elicited both optimism and frustration while compiling a puzzling track record of eye-opening victories and head-scratching defeats, rarely trending in either direction for very long.
"It is not easy to get over the hump, especially when we've had this reoccurring issue of three (wins) in a row and then falling short," Chris Bosh said. "I think it is really just our effort and concentration. We are not good enough to come in and just show up. We really have to get to our identity."
But that's sort of the issue: What exactly is their identity?
Sure, they know what type of team they are. With a top-five defense, a mediocre offense and one of the NBA's worst three-point attacks, it doesn't take a magnifying glass to see where this group butters its bread.
But can anyone decipher how good (or average, or great) this club actually is? As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale noted, it's hard to imagine an improbable conclusion to Miami's campaign:
Dan Favale @danfavale
Aaaaand the award for “NBA Team That Could Feasibly Make the Conference Finals But Also Miss the Playoffs Entirely” goes to the Heat.2016-1-20 01:56:08
After Tuesday's lethargic 91-79 home loss to the 13th-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, Miami (23-19) is on a shade-above-average 45-win pace. The key to exceeding that number is unclear to the players themselves.
"Honestly, I don't have an answer for you," Luol Deng told Bleacher Report. "We just gotta take it one game at a time, try to find each other and compete."
Setting cliches aside, there are some tangible ways for the Heat to gain traction.
Getting healthy would be a start. Miami is currently missing the top two members of its point guard rotation—Goran Dragic (calf) and Beno Udrih (neck)—and their absences have been glaring.
Before Dragic went down, the Heat were fifth in turnovers (13.7 per game). They've committed the second most during the four contests he's missed (18.8). With Udrih and Dragic both on the shelf for the last two outings, Miami has averaged a dismal 76.5 points on 39 percent shooting.
It doesn't help that both Dwyane Wade and Tyler Johnson are playing through shoulder pain. Or that Josh McRoberts has been unable to shake a knee ailment that first sidelined him in early December.
But then again, this is the grueling portion of basketball's marathon. Health scares aren't unique to South Beach.
"Everybody is going through something at this time of year," Erik Spoelstra said. "We got guys gutting it out. We've got guys that are out that are trying to get back in. But the NBA train doesn't wait for you."
In fact, it seems to be quickly catching up to the Heat.
Their encouraging start to the season (21-13 through 34 games) always had a smoke-and-mirrors effect. They only played 12 of those contests away from home and could have taken much better advantage of their favorable schedule.
Listless home defeats at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves (13-30), Washington Wizards (19-21), Brooklyn Nets (11-31), New York Knicks (21-22) and Bucks (19-25) all loom significantly larger with Miami's frequent-flyer miles rapidly piling up.
"We're at a very crucial point in the season," Bosh said. "We knew this point was going to be very tough and it was going to be a gut check—and that was going to be at 100 percent."
With eight of their next nine outings on the road, the Heat have to find a spark for their stagnating offense.
Finding consistent floor spacing could go a long way toward solving that issue. As Ethan Skolnick of the Miami Herald observed, Miami is almost unbeatable when its three-point bombs are falling:
Ethan J. Skolnick @EthanJSkolnick
When the Heat shoots 38% or better from 3, it is 11-1. Otherwise, 12-18. This isn't complicated.2016-1-20 04:24:35
But it's highly unlikely this roster will ever yield reliable outside shooting.
Eight players attempt at least one triple per game. Only two of them are clearing the league-average accuracy rate of 35.1 percent: Bosh (38.5) and Tyler Johnson (37.9).
This problem could require an external solution, but even that is tricky.
The players who could bring back value on the trade market are those Miami can't afford to give away. Plus, it's already parted with three future first-round picks. It also needs to shed payroll—not add it—to sneak under the luxury-tax line and prepare for the upcoming free-agency ventures of Wade, Hassan Whiteside and any top-tier targets in its crosshairs.
That doesn't mean the Heat are doomed. Their defense is dominant (fifth in efficiency, sixth in field-goal percentage against), and they still have a horde of dynamic inside-the-arc scorers (Wade, Bosh, Whiteside and Dragic are collectively providing 61.9 points a night).
However, the lack of a trusty long-ball shooter greatly reduces their margin for error.
The collective impact of turnovers, shot selection, movement and execution is magnified as Miami attempts to maximize each offensive possession.
"We just have to figure out a way to play together more and not shoot as many hero shots and move the ball around and move it to guys when they can do something with it," Wade said.
When the Heat execute their game plan, their good can be exceptional. But their bad can be equally brutal when their streaky contributors slump in unison.
Maybe they're not as mysterious as they seem, then.
At this stage of the game, it might be time to accept this as Miami's true colors. There's enough talent to support a playoff push, but too many ill-fitting pieces to realize the more optimistic preseason hopes.