China on Wednesday slammed NBA commissioner Adam Silver's defence of free speech, cancelling a basketball fan event and lashing him in the state-run press, as Apple was warned it could be the next Western firm punished for supporting democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The NBA had been hoping to boost its popularity in the lucrative China market this week with a pair of pre-season exhibition games, but those plans were thrown into disarray by a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey backing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Silver and the NBA initially responded to Friday's tweet with statements that American politicians branded as caving into China.
But Silver, in Japan for another pre-season exhibition event, then provoked China's ire on Tuesday when he said the NBA supported freedom of expression.
"Silver's about face, which will definitely give a shot to the arms of the rioters in Hong Kong, shows his organization is willing to be another handy tool for US interference in the special administrative region," the state-run China Daily newspaper said in an editorial.
An editorial in the nationalistic Global Times said there was now "little room for reconciliation" as the issue had escalated into a clash of values between China and the US.
The NBA has built a lucrative Chinese fanbase in recent years thanks in part to the popularity of former Rockets centre Yao Ming.
But after Morey's tweet, state broadcaster CCTV and Chinese internet company Tencent both suspended broadcasts of Rockets games and two preseason NBA games in China.
The Chinese Basketball Association, which Yao now heads, also cut ties with the Rockets.
The fallout deepened as a "fan night" due to take place in Shanghai on Wednesday was cancelled, a day ahead of the scheduled pre-season game between the LA Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets.
The Shanghai Sports Federation cited Morey's "inappropriate statement" and Silver's "inappropriate position" for the cancellation.
Speculation has grown in the US that the games themselves -- another is to be held in the southern city of Shenzhen on Saturday -- could be cancelled.
Crews at Shanghai's Mercedes-Benz arena, where the Nets and Lakers were to play, were seen Wednesday morning removing the logos of the NBA, Nets, Lakers, and corporate sponsors from lamp-posts and walls in the area.
Silver was due to arrive in Shanghai Wednesday for the games. He said Tuesday he hoped to discuss the situation with Chinese officials.
A group of young men playing a pick-up game in Beijing on Wednesday said they were disappointed by Morey's tweet and the NBA's response.
"I don't think I can continue to watch (NBA) games," said 26-year-old Fu Hao, sweating after playing in an outdoor court.
"From my point of view, if he supports the independence of Hong Kong, I feel that we should pay more attention to the CBA and less attention to the NBA, because as a Chinese we have to support our country," Fu told AFP.
Hong Kong has endured nearly four months of protests that were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions of criminal suspects to the mainland.
They snowballed into a movement calling for more democratic freedoms and police accountability, in the biggest challenge to China's rule of Hong Kong since its handover from the British in 1997.
Chinese state media has repeatedly warned foreign firms against speaking out or taking any actions to support the protesters, warning it could cost them access to China's market of 1.4 billion people.
Tech giant Apple, which has a huge presence in China, on Wednesday became the latest target.
An opinion piece in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, slammed a transport app available on Apple's store that it alleged helped protesters identify police in Hong Kong.
"Apple's approval for the app obviously helps rioters," the article said. "Does this mean Apple intended to be an accomplice to the rioters?"
The article then cautioned that: "The map app is just the tip of the iceberg", alleging a song supporting Hong Kong independence had also appeared on its music store..
"Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts," it said.
"Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision."
US jewellery brand Tiffany and Hong Kong's flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, have also been heavily criticised in China.
In an illustration of companies trying to stay onside with China, American shoemaker Vans removed some design submissions from a competition, including one apparently praising Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters.
In a Facebook post explaining its decision last week, the firm said it had "never taken a political position", without mentioning the Hong Kong protests or China.