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Suns’ Jermaine O’Neal putting family first

Jermaine O’Neal has often referred to his teammates as “family.”

Well, right now, his immediate family needs him more.

O’Neal left the Suns Tuesday after practice to catch a flight to Boston, where his 13-year-old daughter is awaiting heart surgery.

“Family is the most important thing,” interim head coach Lindsey Hunter said. “It puts everything in perspective when you see your daughter going through what his daughter is going through.”

O’Neal’s daughter, Asjia, has a leaky valve that needs to be fixed.

For Hunter, there was never any question whether or not O’Neal would be by his daughter’s side.

“That’s first priority,” Hunter said. “Our prayers are with him. We hope that everything works out.”

The surgery is Wednesday, the same day O’Neal’s teammates are to play the Toronto Raptors.

The Suns have won three straight games, largely due to the play of the 34-year-old veteran center who has spent half his life in the NBA.

“He’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” Hunter said. “He’s helping mentor the young guys as well as producing on the floor. When you can get a veteran like that it makes our job a little easier, makes his career feel a little more fulfilling and maybe he’ll play more. You don’t know. It looks like he can.”

O’Neal is averaging nearly 15 points (14.7) and better than ten rebounds (10.3) during this current run. Twice he’s recorded double-doubles, including 22 points and 13 rebounds at San Antonio, one of the more impressive wins of the season.

O’Neal is expected to miss the next two, and most likely three, games before rejoining the team.

The Suns have told him to take as much time as he needs.

“We’ll just play it by ear,” Hunter said. “Let him handle his family.”