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.”