Lisa Leslie scored 15 of her 23 points in the first half and the Los Angeles Sparks overcame a slow start to defeat defending champion Houston, 75-60, tonight in the opener of the best-of-three WNBA Western Conference finals.

DeLisha Milton added 16 points and La'Keshia Frett had 11 for Los Angeles.

Sheryl Swoopes had 17 points, Tina Thompson added 13 before fouling out and Cynthia Cooper contributed 12 for Houston, which has won both WNBA championships. The second and, if necessary, third games would be played in Houston, where the Comets were 15-1 this season.

"We looked at this game as the most important game of the year," Sparks Coach Orlando Woolridge said. "If we would have lost this game, it would have been very difficult going into Houston."

The Western Conference winner will face the winner of the Eastern Conference series between New York and Charlotte in the best-of-three championship series.

Playing before a Forum crowd of 10,099, the Sparks led 33-29 at halftime. After an exchange of baskets to start the second half, Los Angeles scored nine consecutive points to lead 44-31.

Cooper ended the streak with a basket, but Los Angeles went on a 6-0 run for a 50-33 advantage with 14:48 left.

"It was a great team effort," Leslie said. "We came out and played -- for the first time, I believe, this whole season -- two 20-minute halves."

Thompson and Janeth Arcain hit consecutive three-pointers to pull Houston with 11 points with 11:41 remaining. A 9-2 run helped cut the lead to 61-54 with 5:05 to play, but Los Angeles scored the next six points and led by at least 12 the rest of the game.

Cooper, the scoring champion in each of the league's three seasons, missed eight of her first nine shots, 12 of 16 overall and 6 of 7 three-pointers.

Los Angeles, which missed its first seven shots and trailed 8-0, took its first lead at 24-23 with 7:18 left in the half.

It was the third game and second loss for Houston since Aug. 19, when Kim Perrot, the starting point guard on its two championship teams, died of cancer at age 32.

The series matches teams with the WNBA's best regular season records. Houston (26-6) and Los Angeles (20-12) split four regular season games, each winning twice at home.