Malone still searching for team effort as Kings falter again

Less than five minutes into the third quarter, the Kings had tested coach Michael Malone’s patience to the point that he benched most of his starting lineup.

Except for forward Luc Mbah a Moute, the starters were done for the night.

Malone said he wasn’t trying to send a message. He was trying to win a game. But that didn’t happen, with the Kings falling to the Memphis Grizzlies 97-86 today at Sleep Train Arena.

The Kings have lost seven of their last eight games and continue to confound their coach with lackluster effort.

That has left Malone searching nightly for a group that will at least play hard so there’s no guessing whom he might have to turn to for a spark.

That group ended up being two players who had been benched, John Salmons and Marcus Thornton, along with Isaiah Thomas, Travis Outlaw and a player who entered training camp without a guarantee of making the team, Hamady Ndiaye.

They cut a 20-point lead to three in the fourth quarter but were unable to overtake the Grizzlies, who dominated with their bruising tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

“When you’re 2-7, I guess I find myself constantly searching for a group that will go out there and play right way,” Malone said. “We made those subs pretty quickly in the third quarter. The group that was out there was not playing the way we need to play, and that is unacceptable to me.”

How a team in the midst of a five-game homestand could look so sluggish baffles Malone, as well as some of the players.

It was obvious early in today’s game that it would be a problem as Randolph (22 points, 10 rebounds) and Gasol (19 points, eight rebounds and nine assists) met little resistance defensively.

“We need to play much harder than we’re playing now for us to win games,” Mbah a Moute said.

Memphis shot 55.6 percent. The Grizzlies (5-5) dictated the tempo for most of the game, too, and were ready to play from the start.

“That’s something that we’re having trouble understanding – we’ve all got to be engaged because we’re not that talented,” Kings guard Greivis Vasquez said. “...Our effort was shaky today. It wasn’t that good.”

Center DeMarcus Cousins had just nine points and a season-low five rebounds while Memphis’ two All-Star big men had their way. It’s only the second time Cousins has scored fewer than 10 points this season. The other time came against the Warriors and Andrew Bogut.

So the Kings finished the game with Ndiaye, who made the Kings’ roster with hustle, energy and enthusiasm.

“(Ndiaye) plays hard, he tries to defend, he screens, he rolls hard to the basket, and he tried on the defensive end,” Malone said.

Ndiaye played a career-high 25 minutes with a career-best six rebounds .

“That’s what I do every day (in practice),” Ndiaye said. “It wasn’t too hard, and I was just waiting for the chance where the team needed me to bring energy to the court, and today was that day.”

Outlaw scored 18 points, all in the second half, to lead the Kings.

“Every night, I feel we should be able to leave it all out there on the court,” Outlaw said. “Even if we don’t win, effort should not be a question. We get to play the game we love, (so) we should always at least play it the right way and play hard.”

No one in the locker room understands why the Kings lack effort.

“It’s so early in the season, effort shouldn’t be a problem,” Salmons said. “You usually get that somewhere in January or February, during the middle of the season where it’s a grind. But we haven’t even played 10 games, and effort is a problem. That’s kind of mind boggling.”

And it leaves Malone searching for a group that hustles.