It was early Wednesday morning on the East Coast when Bullet guard Charles Johnson, flat on his back after pumping in a 25-footer at the buzzer, was engulfed in a huge bear hug by Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

This was a celebration scene worthy of an NBA title-clinching, even if the Bullets only had won a double-overtime game over the so-so San Diego Clippers. But Bickerstaff had reason to rejoice, for rarely has any Bullet game this season been filled with so much drama and so many delightful developments.

The triumph also vividly demonstrated the difference between the defending champions and the struggling, injured, disoriented Washington team of a year ago.

The old Bullets would have lost the game, probably by a large margin. The new Bullets, despite a similar number of crippling injuries, refused to accept defeat even when they trailed by 20 in the third quarter.

Today, they flew here to prepare for a Thursday night game against Truck Robinson and the Phoenix Suns. But even as they boarded the plane, the memory of a sweet night in San Diego must have lingered.

It was a night when Phil Chenier, who had not played in an NBA game for 13 months, made a marvelous comeback when he had not even expected to play for more than a few minutes, at most.

It was a night when Larry Wright, plagued by groin pulls the last few weeks, showed how a skinny, 6-foot-1 guard can dominate this game of giants with quickness and tenacity.

It was a night when the Bullets won despite the absence of Mitch Kupchak and Kevin Grevey, both recovering from injuries back home in Washington. They also lost Bob Dandridge, their best pressure player, for the second overtime when he was ejected after picking up two technicals.

It was a night when the Bullets won a rare West Coast game after Coach Dick Motta had all but given up, yanking his starters near the end of the third period "because I couldn't stand watching them play so horribly."

It was a night when third string center Dave Corzine again demonstrated he belongs in the NBA with a solid 27 minutes that included 10 points, seven rebounds and one boggling behind-the-back pass.

It was, said Chenier, "a night when I really see the difference in this club. There is a feeling here that wasn't around when I got hurt last season. It started in the playoffs, I guess, but it's really taken hold.

"They won't give up. They keep pushing and pushing until they finally win. It was a thrill for me to be a part of it."

No one probably really knows what the last year has been like for Chenier, a quiet, sensitive man once considered the potential prototype NBA guard.

He has recovered from back surgery that many, including hhimself, thought would end his career. Finally, when he felt he was ready to play, the Bullets began a wait-and-see game with him, delaying his return for two weeks.

Chenier yearned to be part of the team that won the championship. Tuesday night, when he played 20 straight minutes late in the game and did a decent defensive job on Clipper Lloyd Free, he no longer felt like an outsider.

The Chenier story has hardly ended. The Bullets still face a decision, perhaps as soon as next week, about whom they will drop from the roster when Kupchak returns off the injured reserve list.

And Motta still must work out a favorable guard rotation that will satisfy all his veterans.But it seems unlikely now that Chenier will be asked again to stay in the background.

A year ago, when Chenier first was sidelined with leg and back problems, the Bullets began a horrible slump that included six losses in seven West Coast games. Motta could envision the start of a similar collapse Tuesday, especially with his team coming off a disheartening loss Sunday in Philadelphia.

He already had scrambled his normal substitution order to make up for the loss of supersub Kupchak. One of his key reserves, Johnson, had to start in place of Grevey.

By the end of the third period, it looked as if this was going to develop into a long and discouraging road trip for a team that had methodically constructed the NBA's best record.

But once Motta went to his reserves, who bailed him out so many times this season, the tempo of the game changed. San Diego, after popping in better than 60 percent of its shots in the first three quarters, lost offensive continuity just when Wright assumed control.

The lithe guard, who finally had to pull himself from the contest when his sore groin muscles tightened up, slithered through the Clipper defense repeatedly for easy baskets.

His 16 points in the fourth quarter, combined with Greg Ballard's strong board work and Chenier's fine defense on the gunning Free, brought the Bullets back.

Ballard's two free throws with 13 seconds left in regulation tied the score at 114, and Free missed a horrible 30-footer at the buzzer to set up the first overtime.

At that point, Chenier almost became a hero straight out of a Hollywood script. With 44 seconds remaining, he swished an 18-foot jump shot from the left side for a 125-123 lead, but Free's basket 20 seconds later necessitated a second overtime.

The Clippers quickly went up by four points, but once again Washington rallied behind Motta's constant sideline encouragement. Elvin Hayes' free throw tied the score at 136 with 28 seconds left, but that was more than enough time for Free, who already had 45 points, to win it.

Working against Johnson, Free dribbled briefly in the front court, then gave one fake that left his Bullet foe flatfooted.

Instead of pulling up for an easy jumper, however, Free tried to challenge Hayes underneath.His awkward layup over Hayes' outstretched arms did not come close and Johnson was able to get off his desperation heave at the other end before time expired.

In the dressing room afterwards, Ballard was icing a sore foot and Wright was treating his sore leg, but both were too pleased to feel much pain.

"You just feel you can come back if you get things going," Ballard said. "Our bench is strong enough to win games against a lot of teams, I think we've proven that."

Corzine stood near him, explaining to an interviewer, "I can play in this league. I've gotten a chance and I'm trying to play hard and do what coach wants me to. Yeah, it's better than being on the bench."

Motta looked at his center and smiled. "They know Dave belongs now," he said. "No one on this team is teasing him anymore."

The Bullets now have won four of the first five games during a stretch of eight straight contests way from Capital Centre... Kupchak will not be able to play again until after next Tuesday but no one seems sure how long his sore Achilles' tendon will take to heal... The Bullets have beaten Phoenix three times this year, but this will be the first game they have played the Suns since Robinson was acquired in a trade from New Orleans.