by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

I’ve spent the last two weeks dealing with health issues. First my own, battling the flu, and then my wife’s. I missed a couple of days of work, couldn’t travel to Atlanta for Bobby Cox’s final regular season game, couldn’t even do the podcast on NBA.com yesterday with Sekou.

All, however, was not lost. I received a copy of NBA 2K11 over a week ago, and every night, once things were quiet and everyone was snug in their bed, I’ve been settling down to attempt to recreate the legacy of Michael Jordan. And it has been nothing short of awesome.

2k11I was planning on writing a column for today’s Links comparing and contrasting NBA Elite 11 and NBA 2K11, which were both supposed to drop today, October 5. Until last week, when, just days before the game was set to hit store shelves, EA Sports announced they were indefinitely delaying Elite.

Instead, all we’ve got dropping today is NBA 2K11, so let’s get right to it: This is the best basketball video game ever released. And one of the deepest sports video games of all time.

2K11 not only has the Jordan Challenge mode, which I previewed here, but you can also play online, you can play franchise mode, you can play the My Player mode, the streetball mode… put it this way: I’ve spent about 15-20 hours on 2K11 and have barely scratched the surface.

I’ve written in the past about basketball video games and how the basic nature of video games keeps them from accurately relaying a true basketball experience. Part of the fun of basketball is the improvisational nature of the game, and it’s always been pretty much impossible to translate that to video games, which rely on structure and formulas. But to me, 2K11 is the closest we’ve come to accurately replicating it. For the first time I can recall in a game, 2K11 pretty much nails defensive switches. For instance, I was playing an ‘86 Bulls/Celtics game with the Bulls, and I missed a shot and the Celts got the ball and threw an outlet to Danny Ainge. I scrambled back to defend and the first guy who got back was Charles Oakley, and he (obviously) cut off Ainge’s drive. Ainge pulled the ball back out, and Oakley just naturally picked him on defense as the Celts set up their halfcourt offense. This is something that would probably happen in an NBA game, but hasn’t always happened in NBA video games.

What pushed things to another level was that Michael Jordan had to pick up Oakley’s man, Robert Parrish, and the Celtics ran a play for Parrish in the post against the smaller defender! Ainge dumped it down to Parrish, I ran down and doubled him as Oakley, and Parrish threw it back out to a wide-open Ainge for a three-pointer.

One facet of the game I’d like to see 2K address next year is the ballhandling. I’m not sure if the NBA Elite demo is still online, but the thing I really enjoyed about the demo was the new dribbling system. By utilizing both joysticks, you really had a terrific amount of control over your player. In 2K11 the ballhandling is responsive, and the more you use the isomotion controls the better you become at it, but it still feels as though there’s some luck involved with getting your guy to do exactly what you want him to do. At the same time, this isn’t NBA Street. It’s not easy to shake loose from guys, and you need to be smart when calling for a pick or an iso. Just like in the NBA.

Still, the first week or so I was playing the game, at least once in each game I went in to do a move with MJ, and I hit the dunk/layup button, and he broke off something that made me blurt out “Oh!” When’s the last time a video game pulled an audible reaction from you when you were playing alone? It’s also pretty awesome getting to play against, say, the 1986 Celtics, and remembering just how bad-ass Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale and the others were.

One other visual thing jumped out at me, and it’s really miniscule but it did intrude on my gameplaying experience a few times: For some reason when players have their white socks pulled up to their knees, the socks continually turn black from different angles, almost as if they’re hypercolor or something. I’m guessing 2K will fix this when they release the next patch.

I’m sure I’ll get around to playing My Player mode or The Association mode eventually, but for now it’s still me and MJ. It took me about a week, but I finally completed step one of the Jordan Challenge: Play against the 1986 Celtics, score 63+ points, shoot at least 50 percent from the floor and have at least 6 assists. For some insane reason I decided to try and accomplish this using 8 minute quarters, and I spent much of that time cursing the Celtics for constantly slowing the tempo. It was hard to get the Bulls to score 63 points, much less Michael Jordan alone. But eventually, the other night he finally did it. I mean, I did it. Actually, I guess we did it, Mike and I, together. (Next up, trying to put 70 on the Cavs. Craig Ehlo, get ready.)

As EA and 2K have battled for dominance in the NBA video game market the last few years, pushing each other to improve their games, the real winner has been those of us who play video games. This year, if you’re in the market for an NBA video game, you don’t have a choice. But with NBA 2K11, I don’t think you’re going to be disappointed.