Every night when he says his prayers, Chris Ford always concludes with: ". . . and thank you, Lord, for Dick Vitale."

"He changed my life," says the Boston Celtics' coach of the animated TV analyst who once coached Ford - for three games - in the NBA."Vitale had me for three games and said I couldn't shoot and he traded me."

He traded him from the Detroit Pistons, where he had played for six years, to the Celtics, where Ford would become one of the greatest three-point shooters in the league. And, not incidentally, where he would become the head coach of the most storied team in basketball.

And now, when Boston Celtics fans say their prayers at night, many of them include "and thank you, Lord, for Chris Ford."

Five years removed from their last NBA championship, Ford has the Celtics, quite literally, running toward the playoffs with their eyes fixed tightly once more on the brass ring. Sunday's showdown with the Chicago Bulls will not necessarily determine whether they will add another championship ring to fingers already dripping with jewelry.

But it could help determine which of the two Eastern powers will have homecourt advantage should they meet in the conference finals.

It was the Celtics' failure to advance past the first round in either of the last two seasons that cost Jimmy Rodgers his job and gave Ford his chance.

He has taken a team that used to annihilate its opponents in the halfcourt and made it into a team that destroys the opposition with a full-court running game.

To Ford it is simply a matter of adapting to his talent and to the demands of the modern game.

"It fits the young players we have," he says, pointing out Rodgers did not have either Brian Shaw or Dee Brown last year.

Shaw had jumped to Italy after his rookie season and Brown was still in college at Jacksonville.

"Bringing Brian back from Italy was the biggest thing," says Ford. "And then drafting Dee Brown.

"We were so dominant in the halfcourt offense in the early '80s," says Ford, "that it wasn't necessary to run."