The enduring memory of what became the National Basketball Association's championship game was the end, Bullet fans rising to applaud a team that offered a most satisfactory season despite being unable to successfully defend its title.

"I think the Bullets have arrived in this area," said the assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff. Then he added, not contradictorily, "It's been a long time since the Bullets have been Bullets."

Nearly two months. The team with the best regular-season record in fact finished less than .500 in the playoffs, 9-10, losing the title to a Seattle team remarkable in its own fashion.

The Sonics lost their dominant player of a year ago to free agentry. The offense and defense had revolved around Marvin Webster. Then his replacement, Tom LaGarde, was injured and played less than a third of the season. Like all fine teams, the Sonics adjusted, everyone playing to his strength - and to his teammates' strengths - and ended the annual NBA marathon as champs.

"What hadn't I expected?" Bobby Dandridge said. "The guards (Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson) played with a lot more confidence. And Freddie Brown's shooting eye came back at just the right time. And (Jack) Sikma adjusted from forward to center very well.Everyone else played steady ball.

"They played better defense, ran back better. They had a good mixture. They did the things necessary to control us. They are the better team."

As an example of how grown men react to unimaginable pressure, Friday night in Capital Centre was excellent. It was not a classic game. Only one player on the winning team, Brown, made more slots than he missed. Wes Unseld managed just three rebounds in 44 minutes. Elvin Hayes was a force for three quarters and no factor the fourth.

Hayes is especially vulnerable in these moments. So much is expected, even after he delivers so much: 29 points, 14 rebounds, two blocked shots. And he emerges from the training room, after his teammates have faced most of the reporters, and says:

"I felt that just getting to the finals I'd be happy . . . I didn't feel we'd get by Altanta, because last year they were so tough . . . Tom (Henderson) and Kevin (Grevey) played out their options and Wes has talked about this being his last year. I'd like to see all three return, but I doubt it.

"Kevin has said he'd like to play elsewhere . . ."

In fact, Grevey made it a point to emphasize, as he limped out of the dressing room: "I'll do anything to stay here. I don't want to leave. I haven't spoken to my agent in six weeks. And I'll finally talk with the Bullets, which I haven't done since training camp last year."

A year ago management considered what surely will take place reasonably soon: a changing of the guards. Wisely, the Bullets allowed their hearts to overrule their better judgement last year - and essentially the same cast performed better until it met guard-oriented teams.

When they consider which guards should come and which guards should go, the Bullets must ask themselves one question: who can help us most next season in the playoffs? The regular-season record is important, but the Bullets probably could make the playoffs with Abe Pollin in the back court.

The Bullets have been disenchanted with Henderson for some time. Yet he might be the most difficult guard to replace, because quality assist men are a scarce commodity in the league.And it hardly would do any good to weaken the front court, say by trading Greg Ballard without assurance Mitch Kupchak's back will improve, for somebody slightly more gifted than Henderson.

There are, by chance, two splendid lead guards among the present free agents. Privately, the Bullets already have discussed Kevin Porter. Publicly, Coach Dick Motta allowed his enthusiasm to show when, during a discussion about Unseld, he said, "We must have about 1,000 outlet passes stored up since Kevin left."

That would be the fascination - Unseld snapping those gorgeous long passes to Porter, who would lead all manner of fast breaks. Veteran Bullet watchers recall that Porter was the point guard on a team that has a better record than this one - but also one that was beaten soundly in the championship round by Golden State four years ago.

Before the Bullets forgive Porter, or make a serious pitch for him, they ought to remember that there were reasons he was traded to Detroit for Dave Bing: he was foul prone, not especially tough defensively and hardly an outside shooting threat.

Memory suggests he had trouble scoring. The record indicates otherwise. In that four-game sweep by the Warriors, Porter made 29 of 52 shots. The Bullets' major problem that playoff series was at small forward, when Mike Riordan lost his jump shot.

Now Washington has the best small forward in the league.

Still, running teams tend to run far less in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. Which means that a more versatile player, such as Armond Hill, might be the better free agent to chase.

Hill is less flashly than Henderson, a good deal slower than Porter. But he plays infinitely better defense than either man, is taller than Porter and has enough of a jumper to relieve double team pressure on Hayes and Dandridge.

When they bought Dandridge on the free-agent market two years ago, the Bullets said they were looking ahead to the teams they would face in the playoffs, specifically the Philadelphia 76ers with Julius Erving. What about future guards?

Well, the 76ers, if Doug Collins becomes healthy, still loom - as does San Antonio, with George Gervin, the Sonics again and perhaps the Phoenix Suns.

There are a lot of playoff teams with large guards who could force the present Bullets to move Dandridge out of position. Which means that if a suitable replacement for Henderson cannot be found there is one collegian the Bullets ought to find a way to draft.

Dudley Bradley.

Bradley is about 6-foot-6 and seems to live for defense. At North Carolina, he played second guard much of the time - and in addition to defensive excellence he showed accuracy to about 20 feet under pressure in the ACC tournament championship game against Duke.

Bradley was not a scorer at North Carolina. He was a scorer in high school. Baltimore player of the year the year Larry Gibson also was a senior. And Carolina players also usually score in the pros. CAPTION: Picture 1, The story of the ending of the season for the Bullets: Mitch Kupchak watches in street clothes; Picture 2, Dennis Johnson gets off the game-winning shot for Seattle; Picture 3, Jack Sikma; Lonnie Shelton blocks out Wes Unseld, Picture 4, Kevin Grevey is injured in first half, missing the rest of the game. Photos by Richard Darcey - The Washington Post; Picture 5, Super-Sonic guard Gus Williams drives past Charles Johnson of Bullets in fourth playoff game. By Richard Darcey - the Washington Post